Pa. House passes bill aimed at paying workers

August 4, 2009 1:10:01 PM PDT
Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday approved a measure designed to pay the tens of thousands of state employees whose wages have been in limbo since the new fiscal year began five weeks ago without a government budget in place. The House voted 195-3 to approve a budget bill that Gov. Ed Rendell plans to cut sharply by using his line-item veto authority. Back-pay checks for 77,000 workers could go out within a week.

The measure is an austerity budget that passed the Republican-controlled state Senate three months ago without any support from Democrats and, by all accounts, does not meet the state constitution's requirement for a balanced budget.

Several lawmakers said Tuesday they were holding their noses in voting for it.

"Every single person in this chamber knows today that this is not a balanced budget," said Rep. Dan Moul, R-Adams. "I have to challenge the constitutionality, although I won't make a motion because I do believe that the state workers do need to be paid."

The vote did nothing to resolve the taxes-vs.-cuts ideological battle that has gripped Harrisburg for months, as the economic slowdown has evaporated billions in expected tax revenues and forced difficult decisions on the politically divided General Assembly.

Negotiation efforts - in public through a House-Senate conference committee and privately at Rendell's official Harrisburg residence - have accomplished little. If anything, the public statements in recent days suggest frustration has set in, and removing state employees from the crossfire could make negotiators less inclined to compromise.

Rendell is expected to "blue-line," or eliminate, well over half the state budget with his veto pen, although exactly which programs will make the cut is not expected to be disclosed before Wednesday.

County governments and school districts are scrambling to cope without state funds, a situation likely to worsen in the coming weeks, said Rep. Bryan Barbin.

"Unless a budget is passed within the next few weeks, hospitals, counties, cities, schools and state contractors will run out of money and be forced to lay off employees," said Barbin, D-Cambria. "That will end our economic recovery."

Rep. Glen Grell, R-Cumberland, who represents an area of suburban Harrisburg replete with state workers, urged Rendell to consider protecting funding for everything from schools to community colleges, food banks, parks and student loans.

"If your school district does not get money because of the blue-line, it will be solely because of the action of the governor in taking out and withholding that reimbursement to them," Grell said during the debate.

The head of Pennsylvania's largest state government employees' union said he was relieved at passage of the so-called bridge budget, but said he was concerned that a final deal may require thousands of layoffs.

"The other battle is just keeping an eye on what the final budget looks like," said David Fillman, executive director of Council 13 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, a union that has 45,000 members in the Pennsylvania state government work force. "That's just as important as the members getting paid."

A timeline of events in Pennsylvania's state budget stalemate:

- Feb. 4: Despite a growing deficit, Gov. Ed Rendell proposes to increase spending in fiscal 2009-10 to $29 billion.

- May 4: Senate votes along party lines to pass a $27.3 billion, no-tax-increase, GOP budget.

- June 16: Rendell calls for a three-year, 16.3 percent increase in the state income tax to balance his $29 billion plan.

- June 30: State Supreme Court agrees to review a lower court's ruling that state employees cannot be paid without an enacted budget.

- July 1: Fiscal 2009-10 begins with no budget, leaving the state unable to pay most bills or meet payroll.

- July 3: About 1,000 employees of the state court system receive partial paychecks.

- July 7: Rendell suggests that state vendors who cut off services because of nonpayment during the impasse might lose their contracts.

- July 17: House passes Democrats' $29.1 billion plan with no income tax increase, but no money for $1.3 billion in higher education subsidies.

- July 18: The state goes deeper into the fiscal year without an enacted budget than in any other year since 1991.

- July 20: Senate passes a revised, $27.1 billion GOP no-tax-increase budget.

- July 31: More than 33,000 executive-branch employees miss entire paychecks.

- Monday: House Democratic leaders say they are no longer seeking an increase in the state personal income tax rate.

- Tuesday: House passes a budget bill intended to pay state workers while negotiations continue on a broader spending plan.

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